ELEVEN – into the valley of death

“Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns,” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Before we progress, a few words on the impact of this event on the physical condition of my heart.

Fucked up, fucked up, fucked up.

Apologies but by gosh, nothing says it like profanity. I was convinced things had materially changed but upon inquiry, the medioso (as in mafioso) told me nothing had changed. Frankly I believe the best you can say is that they stretched the truth such that any shape it had previously held became an amorphouse jelly-like custard blancmange. They were of the Swami Vivakananda school where truth can be stated in a thousand different ways, yet each can be true. The National Health Service in a nutshell. I was told that there was little change in the physiology of my heart, a mild dilation, still almost within normal parameters. Two years later a registrar told me (accidentally letting the cat out of the bag, scratching me severely in the process) that my heart was seriously diseased. (What, seriously?) When I questioned him, it immediately became apparent to him that I didn’t know the truth and he promptly shut up shop. He couldn’t get out the door quick enough. I could see hm counting the rungs he might slip down once the consultant discovered the extent of his blabbering.

Enter Sue. I know you’ve been waiting.

Do you think I should have sued them? I didn’t. But do you think I should have? After all, the incident of four months before should surely alerted them to the fact that my defibrillator was struggling to terminate my arrhythmia (that is, three arrhythmias, nine shocks). Given that I was on no medication at the time, would it not have been prudent to prescribe a beta-blocker, something to help my defibrillator in its (eminently predictable, in my opinion) one-sided battle?

As I ponder this, I am still not sure, but the truth is that at that time I didn’t want to think about it. As it was, I was struggling with a psychological revolution that was undermining everything I thought about myself. I didn’t have the energy to take on the very people who were supposed to be looking after me.  Probably just as well because I probably would have lost. There would have been some legal precedent that a reasonable man would not expect blah, blah, blah. And besides, turns out there would be a better case to be had some time down the line.

Meanwhile, the effect on my psyche of the defibrillator’s merciless and relentless assault on the cricket pitch was profound. The memory of that day was burned into the neural pathways in my brain so deeply that I began to discover the joys of panic. Going to bed at night was difficult, listening to each heartbeat, waiting for it to happen, praying for sleep. But waking up was just as bad, a moment of lucid relief before realisation kicked in, then fear, the fear of simply being alive, of drawing the next breath, an unrelenting jabbering in my ear from that other guy who lives in your head, scaring me to death with stories of what might be. Life was not much fun at this time as I evaluated every potential action in terms of its possible effect on my heartbeat. The pressure was unrelenting. Looking back now I wonder how I managed to survive the first few weeks with my amygdala on DEFCON 1 almost permanently.

A couple of words of explanation (probably unnecessary but there you go): the amygdala is the region of the brain that experts believe is most severely implicated in the cause of panic attacks. It sends messages to many brain regions, including those that control breathing, motor function, autonomic response, release of hormones as well as processing of internal and external information. In a nutshell, it screams run like hell whenever things look like going pear-shaped. DEFCON, meanwhile, is a military term describing phased increases in defence combat readiness, DEFCON 1 being maximum readiness, effectively WAR.

All I can say for certain is that my psychological landscape had undergone a dramatic change. Any lingering certainties were now quite definitely down the pan.

And so to my return to work and to what I have rather melodramatically referred to as the valley of death, though when I dwell on that term it seems to me that it should be plural. There sure as hell seemed to be a lot of these so-called valleys.

This second return to work made my first look like Cliff Richard on a bus singing sweet nothings to a band of happy, extra-jolly hippies lost in a summer of love, though no doubt these days the melody would be drowned out by the noise of the license-fee funded BBC helicopter.

We’re going where the sun shines brightly, we’re going where the sea is blue, I’ve seen it in the movies, now let’s see if it’s true.

Beware. Apparently, they know where you live.

Anyway, enough of the BBC. I stood outside the door of the open plan office that housed what was quite ridiculously referred to as ‘my staff’ for a good two minutes. Hell, that wasn’t a good two minutes, it was two minutes of hell. Better if I had simply pushed through and got it over with. However, at such times, aren’t we all great girders of loins, intent on stretching the anticipation of these moments so that we maximise the pain. My loins were certainly showing the strain.

I had an office of my own but it was on the far side and I would have to walk past the desks of ten or twelve people, (depending upon how many hadn’t taken their full allotment of sick days for the year and had chosen this particular time to water the plants or catch up on those little jobs that always needed doing), seated as they were around their cups of coffee looking anywhere but at the screen in front of them. Oh that they worked as hard as their tongues wagged.

Into the valley of death rode the six hundred, half a league, half a league, cannon to the right, cannon to the left, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of hell.

Much more appropriate than the proverbial bus-load. My very own charge of the light brigade. Don’t snigger. Hyperbole it may be but when you are in the midst of said hyperbole, the ridiculousness of its nature is irrelevant in every way that counts.

As you will have surmised, I made it.

I guess I survived those first few weeks by refusing (as best I could) to allow myself to look even briefly ahead. I overcame the challenges of that first week by living one moment at a time. When I went to work, for example, I focused on the next immediate task, then the next one, then the next one. At no time did I think eight hours ahead. If I had allowed myself such luxury, I would never have made it into the car let alone got to work. At home, I filled my waking hours with television, watching anything and everything, creating noise and scrambling my brain so that thinking became unlikely, if not impossible. Sleep was good, silence, anathema. The proverbial couch potato, I hungered for oblivion, unconscious existence, safety, head back, mouth open such that to the local fly population I was known as The Schwarzchild Singularity, a massive and unimaginably dense area of space to be avoided at all costs

If you think that this sounds like murder (it was to the fly population), then welcome to my world. As a long-term solution, of course, there was no future in such a strategy. However, it served to see me through the immediate aftermath and allowed the passing of time to bring some stability to my recovery and once I had navigated the first few weeks safely, my memories of the trauma began to fade. So, although at this point in my life every passing second was something to be endured, each one of these seconds also left a minute deposit in my life faith bank.

Life faith bank? I hear you ask.

This is not an original observation but you can think of life as being full of banks. (It is anyway so it doesn’t require a great leap of imagination. Switch on the television, everywhere you look, money for sale; in some places even free money – now doesn’t that tell you something about our economic system? Soon, we will see helicopter money – it’s coming, believe me it’s coming. Gordon Brown will be revered in later years as ahead of his time. Tax credits was just the start. In future, you won’t even have to work, just don’t riot). Anyway, back to the matter in hand; you have a separate relationship bank, for example, with every single person that you have a relationship with. As your relationship progresses, so every act that impinges upon that relationship is either a deposit or a withdrawal from that relationship bank. Even small, seemingly irrelevant things will affect the balance. The key to surviving a traumatic event in a relationship is to ensure that you have enough deposits built up so that when a heavy withdrawal is made, that relationship bank doesn’t go into overdraft. If you go into the red, then your relationship is in trouble.

Likewise, you have what I call a life faith bank. It is not faith in God, although those who believe in God will derive their faith in life from this latter faith. Rather it is simply faith in the world and your place in it. You need to believe that you are healthy, that crossing the road is safe, that the sun will come up tomorrow and so on. To enjoy the gift of your life you need to have this faith. Otherwise your life will be unbearable. Of course, we achieve this faith in life for the most part through day to day living. We trust these things are not going to happen because they haven’t happened yet in the so many years that we’ve been alive. That’s why sudden death is such a shock (in addition to the more obvious reasons). It’s a very personal black swan.

However, the thing about banking transactions is that withdrawals tend to be irregular and large, whereas deposits tend to be small and regular. When a withdrawal is made from your life bank, therefore, it will usually represent a significant event in your life. In my case, of course, I suffered more than one major withdrawal. My faith bank balance was, therefore, a very bright shade of red. Hence my problems with everyday living.

There are no ready-made solutions for such a situation. In hindsight one thinks of it as being a slow rebuilding of one’s life but at the time it is simply a question of survival. Distrust of one’s own body is a terrible thing, it feels like a betrayal of the most intimate nature. The daily and constant dread that your body is going to let you down again is a monumentally tiring and dispiriting business. I shared every waking hour with the saga on the cricket pitch as it insinuated itself into every situation in my life via the increased number of abnormal beats being generated in my heart, each unsyncopated beat sending a fight or flight message around the pathways of my brain.

As I mentioned before, however, the passing of time, did bring about some progress. This did not come about through an improvement in my condition but through my response to that condition. I began to realise that I was living my life within a very limited circle of comfort. This involved concentrating on doing as little as possible for fear that it might upset what felt like the fragile balance that had been established in my heart. However, in many ways this was worse than death. Did I want to spend the rest of my life as a psychological cripple? By remaining in my circle of comfort I was prolonging the agony of the ordeal and living nothing more than a gloomy half-life. I realised fairly early in the rehabilitation process that true recovery involved some hard choices. Although the temptation to remain inside this circle of comfort, no matter how emasculating, was overwhelming it was clear to me that only I could reclaim my life. No-one would do it for me.

Yet despite this revelation, for a while I continued to prevaricate. As if in a dark cave, I hid, unable to move, hemmed in by the nothingnessness around me. I squatted, an inert powerless figure, afraid of the darkness but strangely comforted by it at the same time. Yet I knew that I needed to break free, (cue Freddie Mercury – what a heartcry! Such a great song with such a great sentiment, written and sung by someone so clearly enslaved by his own desires. Some will say tragic, others will quote The Who, hope I die before I get old).

Somehow I needed to find some more courage. It was around this time that I discovered Viktor Frankl.

Viktor Frankl was a survivor of four concentration camps, the most famous of which was Auschwitz. His wife, mother, father and brother died in the camps; only he and his sister survived. In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, he takes the reader back to his grotesque experiences in the Nazi death camps. Frankl did not consider himself a hero, rather he describes the heroes or “saints” as those people who gave up their portions of bread for others, or gave their lives in order to save someone else from the gas chamber. Somehow he survived the unimaginable conditions and atrocities that were part of his everyday life. This survival was remarkable for its psychological aspect as much as for its physical dimension. But Frankl was more than just a holocaust survivor. In fact he was criticised in his native land regarding the absence of the word “Jew” in his tale of the camps. He replied to this criticism, “In my whole book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ you will not find the word ‘Jew’. I don’t capitalise from being a Jew and from having suffered as a Jew”. Frankl wasn’t limited by viewing his experience within the blinkers of Jewish persecution. He turned his experience around and instead of focusing on that persecution, he concentrated on how the experience affected his own nature and how he could exert control in a life where seemingly all control had been taken away. His focus was not external, he did not hate the Nazis; instead he focused internally, learning to draw the maximum good from his life.

Frankl believed like Nietzsche that he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how. But how could anyone, under such a primitive existence survive, much less find meaning in life. Frankl did just that against all odds:

“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a triumph.”

Frankl realised that man always has the ability to choose; no matter the biological or environmental forces. He maintained that optimism in the face of tragedy enables each of us to maximise our human potential. In this way guilt can be seen as an opportunity to change oneself for the better and suffering can be turned into human achievement and accomplishment. Interestingly, the sign at the entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp “Arbeit macht frei” translates as work brings freedom and was put up by the camp commandant, Major Rudolph Hoss. It would appear that this was meant as neither mockery nor a promise of freedom. Rather, as a mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labour brings spiritual freedom. If this is the case, Viktor Frankl certainly seems to have got the message.

As for me, Frankl’s message touched me in a way I cannot adequately describe. He gave me the promise of control and meaning in my life at a time of hopelessness and despair. He believed that the key to success in our lives lay in how we used the moment between action and reaction, that though there are many times in our lives when we are powerless to affect what happens to us, we are always in charge of how we respond. Given my situation, especially the feelings of being under constant attack, I saw immediately how Frankl’s philosophy had applications to my everyday life. For the first time I began to get a glimpse of what it truly meant to take personal responsibility for my own life. Subsequently, I was to experience an event so dramatic that this lesson was to come in extremely handy. More of that later.

At that time, suffice it to say that Frankl was a beacon to me in my not inconsiderable darkness. He gave me hope.

All a bit deep, I know, but it was a tough time.

Read on……